15 years later, Warframe is finally close to realizing its original vision

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When Digital Extremes first revealed the Warframe Empyrean update last year, it was a transformative moment for the free game and its community. At the end of a live tour of their second open world area, the on-stage developer team surprised everyone with a second demo of the unannounced update that would allow players to build spaceships, explore, and fight in space.

I don’t think I can fully convey the wave of confusion and excitement that washed over the live audience at the time. For six years, players had been stuck exploring procedurally generated corridors and some open-world areas, but then a squad of Tenno boarded a Railjack spacecraft, flew into low orbit over Venus, and battled a Corpus capital ship. It was a bold show that had the audience screaming and cheering.

But for Digital Extremes developers like game director Steve Sinclair, the quest to create Empyrean goes back decades. It’s a story woven into Digital Extremes’ own brushes of financial disaster and Sinclair’s obsession with bringing a genius fantasy wrapped up in a challenging game design puzzle to life.

Clipped wings

At Tennocon 2019 this past weekend, Digital Extremes gave players their second taste of space combat in Empyrean with a 30-minute live demo. Rather than a shocking twist as with their initial reveal, Sinclair and his team opted to give players a detailed look at how the ship’s piloting works while surprising them with fun features like the ability to steal enemy ships or call in a second squad from somewhere else in the solar system for ground support.

You can read about Empyrean in my preview, but the gist is that Warframe meets indie roguelike FTL. With four friends, you pilot a spaceship through stretches of open space, controlling battle stations and dividing your limited power reserve between different offensive and defensive modules as the situation requires. But the comparison ends there because players can also disembark from the Railjack in their Archwing flight suits and spin around, invade enemy ships, or explore abandoned ruins floating in space.

It’s a mode that Sinclair doesn’t like to call expansion, as it doesn’t expand that much, but rather brings all of Warframe’s disparate features together into a cohesive whole. It also brings Warframe closer than ever to the original idea for the game that nearly ruined Digital Extremes in the early 2000s.

Unreal Tournament

Before the release of Warframe, Digital Extremes had made a name for itself by developing Unreal Tournament. That success inspired his team to create their own game, an ambitious sci-fi MMO called Dark Sector, a very different game from the Dark Sector that Digital Extremes released in 2008.

“It’s probably common knowledge [at this point] that the original version of Dark Sector was science fiction, anime, glowing tentacles sticking out of your head like a game,” laughs Sinclair. “But I made the mistake of convincing the studio that we would also write our own game engine at the same time, which is a great way to sink a company.”

It’s a beautifully told story in NoClip’s Warframe documentary, but the gist is that no publisher wanted to fund Digital Extremes’ bizarre sci-fi MMO, so the studio was forced to do contract work to make ends meet. month and eventually scrapped many of his ideas. or adapt them to make the Dark Sector third person shooter game that was finally released in 2008.

Digital Extremes

Although the modest success of Dark Sector and the development of games like The Darkness 2 led to Digital Extremes for a few years, in 2012 the studio needed a new game, and it was very clear that no publisher wanted to fund their original Dark Sector idea. . To survive, Digital Extremes was going to have to adapt.

“We had this crisis,” says Sinclair. “What are we doing? What are we going to do now? Are we going on tour? What’s our pitch for our next game? At one point I had written something, I’m not taking credit for this, but I had written it this cartoon design document called Tenno. It was like space-ninjas-slash-space-pirates, and the idea was that we would make an Xbox Live Arcade game, do you remember that game genre? And I thought, the budget is small enough, the Expectations are small enough, the price is small enough. We could do that and post it ourselves. “

Digital Extremes only had enough money to last for about a year. As the studio tried to land more contract work, Sinclair and a team began building a little free game out of this field. But with limited resources and impending bankruptcy, Sinclair says this is not the time to start taking risks.

Dark Sector

To help offset the burden on the design team, this new game would use procedurally generated levels and ancient art resources and features stripped from the unfortunate original Dark Sector concept. “It was really a function of the need to use all the parts of the buffalo,” explains Sinclair. “Trying to create a product from the remains of the things that I had. And that’s what we did.”

Of everything detailed in that original release that would eventually become warframe support, one feature remained on the cutting room floor: Spaceflight. “The first version of Warframe that shipped as a closed beta was only nine months of work by ten people,” says Sinclair. “We said, well, it would be great if we could go into space, but we don’t have time. Execute in what we know we can execute, and at that point there were procedural levels with the Left 4 Dead playstyle. We knew how to do shooters, so it was like, we have the code, we know how to do this kind of thing, come on, come on, come on. “

Although spaceflight was a key part of the original Warframe design, Sinclair says that it created significant design challenges that Digital Extremes was not equipped to solve at the time.

Dozens Of Enemies

“You have this problem with physics,” Sinclair explains. Unlike most space combat games, Sinclair wanted to create spaceships that players could fight and explore while simultaneously flying through space. To illustrate his point, Sinclair grabs the table we’re sitting at and pushes it so that the cups of water resting on it almost spill. In order for the movement physics of each character in the game to work properly, the game engine would have to constantly compensate for the math to stay in relation to the ship’s movement and speed so that the metaphorical water glasses (in this case, the players) did not spill while moving. It’s a problem that gets exponentially more complicated when you add dozens of enemies and multiple spaceships that players can invade and explore all the fights in a shared universe.

Portals solve everything

Even without the space combat, Warframe slowly became a huge success thanks, in part, to its launch on Steam. In 2014, the Archwing update allowed players to dress in Gundam-style flight suits that allowed six degrees of freedom while flying through linear sections of space that still closely resembled the design of Warframe procedural corridors. But Sinclair couldn’t give up on that original idea of ​​allowing players to fly ships in open spaces.

Empyrean

In 2017, more than a year before Empyrean was featured on Tennocon, Sinclair was streaming on his personal Twitch account when he decided to share the problem, and the proposed solution, with his viewers who were unaware that this feature would one day be part of Warframe itself.

In this stream, Sinclair explained that the Unreal Engine had a trick called ‘portal rendering’ that was the key to making Empyrean work. If you remember the puzzle game Portal, the representation of the portal is exactly what it sounds like: you create a “window” to a different area of ​​space that you can see. “It’s a simple fucking trick,” laughs Sinclair. “It’s the simplest thing.”

When you watch that Empyrean demo and see the player flying the ship, all you see is an illusion. There is a large portal extended through the cockpit of the Railjack, and the ship itself is not moving at all.

But the players are not trapped inside the Railjack. They can also get out through their Archwings and fly in space. Once again, Sinclair and his team came up with clever illusions to make the transition feel seamless. “If you pay close attention to the demo, there are moments of crossfades,” says Sinclair. “You’re flying in the ship, you’re about to jump into the little pneumatic tube that spits you out in space, and we play an animation. As you animate, it turns black and we show you here in real space. 3D space.”

Railjack

While on the Archwing, you are actually flying in space, but because the scale of Warframe character combat and space combat are wildly different, you are actually reduced to “fairy size” to maintain the illusion of that the Railjack is bigger than your character. However, keep in mind that the Railjack you see flying in space while in your Archwing is not the same Railjack that your teammates might still be inside, it’s just a model without an actual interior.

Although Sinclair discovered the solution to this conundrum years ago, Digital Extremes’ brush with bankruptcy meant the studio had to be very careful about where they spent their time. But that is changing rapidly. Warframe is a game defined by its audacity; this is a game with a warframe whose weapon is a programmable synthesizer, after all.

Fortuna

Empyrean is different, however. It feels like an update that could see Warframe undergo even more significant evolutions in the future. Sinclair says the team isn’t making Empyrean another “island” to work on (like some of Warframe’s compartmentalized expansions), but rather a way to connect everything from racing through procedural levels to battling Archwing and fishing with harpoon in Fortuna.

As our time together comes to an end so Sinclair can prepare to take the Tennocon stage and show Empyrean to an audience of thousands (not to mention the 400,000 viewers they will see on Twitch), I ask him how it feels to finally realize it. . a fantasy he’s been haunting for so long. His response takes me by surprise.

“You should ask me that tomorrow,” he says. “Right now, I’m on the edge. I’m afraid it’s not enough for our audience. I don’t want to let them down, that’s the most important thing. I don’t want to have a technical glitch that torpedoes the whole thing and knocks them down. I feel a huge responsibility. to these people. “

But that responsibility was born out of the freedom that allowed Sinclair to experiment in the first place. Sinclair remembers a frigid January after the launch of Warframe and was successful enough not to have to fear losing his job and Digital Extremes going bankrupt.